In the eighth inning, No. 3 seed Maryland was hanging around keeping almost in lockstep with No. 1 seed East Carolina late into the ballgame down just 5-4.
But Pirates' third baseman Zach Agnos lined a two-run double to right field, putting ECU up by four with just an inning and a half left to play.
In a sold-out Clark-LeClair Stadium, the Pirate faithful exploded as the game-winning runs crossed the plate, and Maryland fell, 9-6, to East Carolina, ending its season with a Super Regional berth in the distance.
“I mean, the adversity that these guys have been through, the challenges that have been put in front of them. I tell you what, I’ve been a part of some special teams over the last 10 years, especially here in Maryland. I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of a team that’s done what this team’s done,” head coach Rob Vaughn said.
The Terps took home a win in their first game of the day, a 2-1 walk-off victory over No. 2 seed Charlotte to avoid elimination and earn themselves a trip to the Final. A win on Sunday night would force a winner-take-all game on Monday against the Pirates to decide Greenville’s representative in the Nashville Super Regional; a loss would end Maryland’s season.
Right-hander Connor Staine, making his first appearance since May 8 and his first start since April 4, toed the rubber for the Terps in their first regional final since 2015.
The Pirates jumped on him quickly. After retiring dangerous second baseman Connor Norby, Staine surrendered back-to-back doubles to first baseman Thomas Francisco and designated hitter Josh Moylan.
Left fielder Alec Makarewicz followed up with a hard single up the middle, and East Carolina jumped out to a 2-0 lead before Maryland even came to bat.
The Terps would respond in kind and fast. Second baseman Matthew Shaw worked the count against Pirate starter Jake Kuchmaner and sent an elevated fastball into the trees in left field to cut the deficit to just one run.
“I mean, as a leadoff hitter, I’m kind of just trying to see some pitches. And pretty much every time I go to bat, I’m just trying to hit the ball hard, and I got two good pitches to hit,” Shaw said.
East Carolina refused to get complacent with their one-run advantage. After a quick two outs in the top of the second, catcher Seth Caddell lined a solo home run to left field to increase the lead to 3-1, and shortstop Ryder Giles doubled to left to chase Staine after just an inning and two thirds.
That lead swelled to 4-1 in the next inning, after a sacrifice fly from third baseman Zac Agnos pushed another run across against reliever Sam Bello.
While Maryland’s pitching didn’t have their sharpest command, the Pirates were simply on top of everything Vaughn’s staff threw at them. Their vaunted lineup worked tough at-bats, and every swing they took was with intent and conviction.
“I mean, we trust every guy going out there. And you know, whoever goes out there, we got their back no matter what. And so just makes for fun baseball. Everybody trusts everybody,” Shaw said.
Shaw established a brilliant night at the plate with his second long ball of the night, this time to right field, to bring Maryland within two after three innings of play. Right fielder Randy Bednar followed with a single and first baseman Maxwell Costes walked, forcing another pitching change for East Carolina.
Righty Cam Colmore took the mound with two on and one out in the Maryland half of the third, but he quickly retired the next two batters to end the threat.
The Pirates responded to keep the game just out of reach. Bello struggled to control his fastball, putting two on with two out and forcing Sean Fisher to replace him. Fisher hit two batters on the first two pitches he threw, and East Carolina took a 5-2 lead.
The Terps had failed to push runners in scoring position across in the first four innings. ECU pitching worked confidently and calmly in high-pressure situations to limit the damage to Shaw’s homers.
That changed in the fifth. Maryland loaded the bases on a single, walk and hit by pitch, and a two-out single by Troy Schreffler Jr. knocked two runs in and brought the Terps within one run with four innings left to play.
“The last two months or so we’ve been playing with our backs against the wall every day it seemed like,” Costes said. “So to be honest, whether it was the first game versus Charlotte today, or even in this game, it kind of felt like, you know, we never really felt like we were out of it.”
Maryland stranded another two runners on base in the bottom of the sixth, as Carolina reliever C.J. Mayhue worked quickly and calmly under pressure to keep the Terps playing from behind. Driving runners in continued to be a problem after Schreffler’s RBI hit; through six innings of play, the Terps stranded 11 runners on base, each of which could have been the difference in what became a one-run fixture.
After three and a third innings of 0 ER baseball, Sean Fisher seemed to lose his command a bit. He had battled through his outing, bending but never breaking in front of an unfriendly crowd, but opened the eighth with back-to-back walks to the nine-hole and leadoff hitters.
Righty Sean Heine climbed the mound in his place, who forced two straight ground balls that Maryland’s defense was unable to turn into clutch, or inning-ending, double plays. The latter of those grounders allowed a run to score, improving East Carolina’s lead.
The next batter, Agnos, lined a ball into the right-center gap for a two-run double. Maryland entered the eighth trailing by one; they left the Pirate half of the frame trailing 8-4.
As they have all season, the Terps wouldn’t go down without a fight. With two outs and a runner on base, Costes lined a homer to right field, cutting the Pirate advantage in half and setting up a tense ninth inning.
ECU added another run in the top of the ninth on an RBI fielder’s choice to shortstop, and their 9-6 lead would be enough to last through the bottom of the inning and secure the Pirate win.
“Every ride’s got to end some time and it’s always hard, but man, that was a fun ride with those guys,” Vaughn said.
Three things to know
1. Matthew Shaw showed what’s to come in the rest of his Maryland career. Shaw entered Sunday’s Final with a team-best .324 batting average. His hitting ability hasn’t been in question at any point this season. But the ability to perform on the biggest of stages, when moments are remembered in collegiate baseball programs the longest, is a different story.
Shaw turned in quite a performance under the bright lights of Clark-LeClair stadium on Sunday night. He homered in his first two at-bats, accounting for Maryland’s only scoring efforts before the fifth inning, an effort that kept the Terps very much in the ballgame until the later innings. It was a sign of the freshman’s propensity to produce in big moments for the rest of his years in a Maryland uniform.
“I think this year is going to help us grow as a program. I think adding experience to younger guys is good. But most importantly, I think we’ve started to develop a culture that knows how to win games,” Shaw said. “And I think if we can create an expectation that winning is what we do, it’s going to change just changed a lot in this program.”
2. The Terps pitchers did just enough to keep the Pirates within range. ECU was one of the most prolific offenses in the American Athletic Conference in the regular season, leading the group in average (.309), slugging (.479), and on-base percentage, (.396). The top of their order, especially, is chock full of some of the most dangerous hitters in Division I baseball. But Maryland didn't back down from the challenge, especially considering that most of Maryland’s more successful arms weren’t available to throw. Sean Fisher, particularly, was especially impressive, throwing three innings of one-run baseball to hold the Pirates at bay.
3. Maryland’s magical run and season have come to an end. Seven consecutive series wins to round out the season. An 18-4 run in their last 22 games. A trip to the regional final. Maryland baseball put on quite a show in the second half of the season, earning themselves their first trip to the NCAA postseason since 2017 and their first two-win Regional weekend since 2015. The Terps employed a mix of veteran savvy and youthful talent to become one of the most memorable Maryland teams in recent years, and Rob Vaughn now has a solid nucleus of young stars, filled with the culture and personality impressed upon them by their senior teammates, to keep the future bright going forward.
“Sometimes it really just takes that one year where something switches. You start to learn how to win, you start to have that culture and then things just kind of spiral upwards for years from that,” Shaw said.
“So I’m hoping that this year we look back and be like, ‘That’s the year that Maryland baseball really decided that they were going to be a contender every year.’”